Driven: 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth

By Seyth Miersma

March 02, 2012

—Las Vegas, Nevada
The Fiat 500 Abarth is a kind of litmus test for driving enthusiasts in America. Those of us that salivate over European models will undoubtedly be familiar with the brand, but the Abarth name may have little or no resonance with the run-of-the-mill US car guy. Mini has made some strong inroads over the last decade, educating US consumers that small, quasi-premium performance cars can be really desirable. But Fiat has yet to truly prove that there is market share enough for two serious players in this very small hot hatch space. The Abarth is cool, great to drive, possessed of legitimate motorsport heritage, and priced right within its segment—but are enthusiast shoppers in our country ready for a sports car this, well, Italian?
We hope so.
Because, from the moment we slotted ourselves behind the flat-bottomed steering wheel, outside of the Hard Rock Hotel on the Las Vegas strip, to the last turn of the last hot lap we ran for the day, we loved driving this car. As characterful, chuckable, and easy to drive as any hot hatch we’ve tested, the Abarth has precious little in the way of flaws for those looking for significant thrills, for budget-car dollars.
[Click here to read our comparison test between the 2012 Fiat 500 Sport and the 2011 Mini Cooper]
And of course, there are those who will make big talk about the Abarth 500 being too expensive, simply because it’s really small. We call it this way: the Abarth undercuts the price of its closest competitor, the Mini Cooper S. It feels reasonably more plush inside, relative to the base 500, with attractive accent materials and styling—most notably the new steering wheel, and a new set of front seats. The car’s fleet-footed handling helps to make it dynamically well-suited to face up with the newly brawny, V-6-powered Pony cars from Ford and Chevy, even though the Fiat is not as fast overall. You’ll buy or not buy the Abarth, realistically, based on whether or not you think its core concept—tiny, blistering hot-hatch—is cool. We do, especially after a great day of driving the thing.
Our path from Las Vegas to the oft-visited Spring Mountain Motorsports Ranch was a familiar but good one: westward out of the city, through the warm, brown monochrome of the sprawling suburbs, and with a pleasantly diverting side trip through Red Rock canyon. We’ve covered this route (or its rough approximation) in cars ranging from a Nissan 370Z to the new Hyundai Azera, and were therefore ready for the enticing canyon drive, especially.
On the way out to that snaking canyon road, Fiat’s fast 500 proved marginally better than its base-model counterpart in urban traffic. We were certainly better able to shoot the various gaps in traffic with the Abarth’s more potent powertrain (and quick-spinning turbo), but the standard Cinquecento is fine in tight conditions, too. The small footprint and quick steering of all 500s is really all that it takes to rule the urban roads—that and a willingness to dice with the bigger, slower-witted commuter machines.
From the perfect surface of the Las Vegas strip, to the sun-bathed but unbuckled desert roads out to Pahrump (where the track lives), our test route had barely a whiff of bad road surface. The very occasionally crumbled sections of the road through Red Rock were the best we could go by, but on that little evidence, we feel that Fiat has nailed the ride quality for the Abarth. We’ll attest later about the sporting nature of the underpinnings, but we first note that the ride quality on offer from the Abarth is really good, and decidedly less jittery than we’ve felt from various Mini Coopers. Not once did we feel or hear the suspension bottom out, the slightly rippled surfaces of some of the roads we covered didn’t set up a hobby-horse motion, and the small imperfections in surface that we encountered were telegraphed through the floorboards without drama.
This sense of calm was enhanced, undoubtedly, by a slight overall numbness in the steering feel. Still, on the long/flat/boring parts of the journey, we were pleased as punch to knock out miles in great comfort.
The road through Red Rock Canyon is anything but long, flat, and boring. It was on that road that the Abarth started to come together for us as a diver’s tool, in just the way that we were hoping it would.
Let’s go back to that steering. Full of road feel it may not be, but there’s little doubting that some enthusiast-focused time and effort has been applied to the steering rack, which boasts a faster ratio than that of the standard 500, and feels pretty amazing to toss around because of it. The fast action of the steering rack works hand-in-glove with the ultra-short wheelbase of the Abarth, to create a car that will change direction with near telepathic speed.
Now, even with the less aggressive ratio on the base 500, rotational ability is top notch—however, we were always less than pleased by that car’s too-soft suspension during such maneuvering, That problem has been largely eliminated with this Abarth tuning. 40-percent stiffer spring rates and dual-valve Koni shocks up front; upgraded axle, springs, and stabilizer bar in the back; ride height lowered by a substantive 0.6-inches. All of that adds up to a car that is smoother through a very quick corner than anything this short has a right to be.
During long stretches between catching up with ambling, sightseer-laden rental cars, we were able to flow from corner to corner in the Fiat, finding that there was much more feedback from the tires to the steering wheel when on lock than at dead center. Grip was no problem on the low- to medium-speed tight corners either, nor on any of the very few higher-speed sweepers that crisscross the Red Rock roads.
The closest analog to this kind of on-road handling experience is, again, that of a Mini Cooper S, and we’d wager that most enthusiasts would prefer the feel of the Abarth. The Mini offers a more visceral experience overall, but its mid-corner vibe is far jumpier and edgier than that of the silky Fiat.
The road-test coordinators for this Abarth first-drive program did more good than they may have known, as well, in picking a road through a towering canyon. The exhaust note of the Abarth is a deeper, louder version of the Cinquecento’s voice—one that truly rips across the surface of the earth (and bounces with piquant candor off of nearby rock faces) as the revs rise. It has been our experience with some turbocharged cars that the sonic character is often duller than with their naturally aspirated competitors, but the Abarth’s voice speaks straight enthusiast dope, and with feeling. 
The engine that’s doing all the work to produce those great sounds is pretty formidable in its own right. The turbocharged, intercooled 1.4-liter pumps out a significant 160 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque, but the real-world effects of those numbers are much more sporting than the total output might suggest. With only around 2500 pounds to move around, the turbo motor feels strong at nearly every engine speed. Peak torque comes on at 2500 rpm, and the engine revs so quickly that there’s not much of a lag feeling below that. When accelerating aggressively through the first three gears, we noticed little difference in perceived speed when we shifted up at the redline (indicated by a kind of annoying light in the center of the boost gauge), or when we shifted up 500 or so below that.
What’s more, the engine still felt strong in the last couple of gears (there are only five to choose from), too. The Abarth pulled surprisingly hard from high-speeds, even offering a lot of scoot at 80 and 90 miles per hour up to, well, faster than we should have been driving. You won’t find this small-engined car struggling to mix with traffic at highway speeds, to put it mildly.
Another positive mark for the Abarth, with regards to highway driving: the car is much quieter than we’d expected. The largish wheels are never completely unheard in the cabin, and you’ll get an earful of the aforementioned exhaust note when you put your foot down, but at cruising speeds the car is quite placid.
After pushing through the desert to reach Spring Mountain, we were pleased, if unsurprised, to find that the Abarth formula was nearly as successful on the track as it proved to be on the road. We had the track’s longest configuration on which to drive, a hefty 3.4-mile lap, with a broad variety of interesting corners, and plenty of high-speed sections, too.
We noticed immediately how much better this five-speed gearbox is than the unit used in the standard Fiat 500. The shifter had great weight to it, slotting solidly and precisely from gate to gate, even under trying on-track conditions. This still isn’t the shortest throw of any manual box we’ve used, but the overall feel is such a huge improvement over that of the plasticky unit in the base car, we didn’t complain much. (With all of that said, and with the positive performance of this 5MT noted, the lack of a six-speed gearbox will be remarked upon by many shoppers, we predict.)
Where the gearbox did its part to help us set up for a turn, the Abarth’s uprated brakes were ever so slightly disappointing. To be sure, the 11.1-inch, ventilated, single-piston front rotors (9.4-inch in back) had no trouble hauling the car down from triple-digit speeds, but the car itself moved around a bit too much under heavy braking. Straight-line stopping from 80 mph and above often elicited some lateral squirming from the rear of the vehicle—hardly a confidence-inspiring experience. And yet, the brakes were strong enough that a quick dab of the middle pedal was often enough to set our line right for less acute turns. There’s a chance that some more time playing with the braking system would lead us to more of a feeling of predictable behavior then, but first impressions were, obviously, mixed.
All of the handling niceness that we experienced on public roads, translated perfectly to the circuit, too. The Abarth proved willing to be corrected, mid-turn, should our initial line have proved wrong, while the underpinnings kept us flat while turning, and progressively informed of the grip situation (here that on-lock steering feel came in handy).
The Abarth tuners have a clear vision of this being a part-time track car, and it shows. One further note here for those consider the Abarth as a track tool: forgo the sunroof if you’re on the tall side. Your test author measures out at six-feet, five-inches, and had no problem fitting into the car with a helmet on. However, the sunroof detracts substantially from the available headroom, so clearance could be an issue.
The 2012 Fiat 500 Abarth is a special car. It is a very different car than the base model it has been built upon, and should be heavily appealing to those drivers that are considering the very most sporting selection of small cars.
VS: Mini Cooper S
If you’re predisposed to be interested in what the Fiat 500 Abarth is selling, then the Mini Cooper S is almost certainly a cross-shop candidate. To be clear, despite the very racing-inspired, tuning-house worthy looks of the thing, the 500 Abarth is best compared with the Cooper S, rather than something more potent like a John Cooper Works Mini.
Look at the facts: Mini’s S-tuned cooper uses 181 turbocharger-derived horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque, to hustle at least 2668 pounds of weight, sans driver. The lighter, 2512-pound Fiat is down a substantial 20 horses and 7 torques then, but the weight-to-power ratios are still very close (favoring the Mini by about a pound per horsepower) and the weight-to-torque equation just barely favors the Abarth. The Mini-favoring figures also include 0-60 time (0.6-seconds faster for the Cooper S) and top speed (141 mph versus 129 mph).
To compensate for the slight performance disadvantage, the 500 Abarth offers much better ride quality, a significantly lower starting price ($1800 less for the Fiat), and a more exclusive car. (Fiat didn’t mention exactly how exclusive, however). The 500 has a much shorter options list, and will ultimately cost a lot less than the Mini when both are offered with high levels of equipment.
2012 Fiat 500 Abarth
Engine: Turbocharged inline-4, 1.4 liters, 16v
Output: 160 hp/170 lb-ft
0-60 MPH: 7.2 seconds
Weight: 2512 lb
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 28/34 mpg
Base Price: $22,000
On Sale: March 2012